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Sun Belt Story: After a strong non-conference, the league is ready for an all-out battle

UT Arlington is the favorite, but Arkansas State, Little Rock, and others have shown they can compete

NCAA Basketball: Texas-Arlington at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The non-conference schedule has shown that the Sun Belt has more than held its own against some of the top teams across the country. Here’s a look at who has impressed, who has disappointed, and a preview of what is to come as the 12 teams fight it out from January through to March to make it to the big dance.

The Sun Belt certainly has scored its share of marquee victories against higher-regarded conferences, with the preseason favorite UT Arlington proving why it has what it takes to get to the NCAA Tournament. The Mavericks are currently riding a nine-game winning streak, and took down then-unbeaten and No. 12 Saint Mary’s on the road, 65-51, for its first win over a ranked opponent in school history.

Scott Cross and Co. also took down Texas in Austin for the first time ever, 72-61, and preseason player of the year pick Kevin Hervey seems back up to speed from his ACL recovery, averaging 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds a game.

Arkansas State sent shockwaves nationally with its 78-72 victory on the road at Georgetown, and first year head man Grant McCasland has the Red Wolves sitting at 9-4 heading into conference play. Devin Carter is second in the league, averaging 17.8 points a game, and posted a 31-point outing against UT-Martin, the highest point total of any player in the conference this season.

Louisiana Lafayette is off to a 10-4 start and BYU transfer Frank Bartley has been a big reason behind it, averaging 16.6 points on the season. Bryce Washington is having a standout junior campaign, leading the conference in rebounds at 11.8 a game and is averaging 14.7 points to go along with his board work.

The defending conference champion Little Rock has had a solid non-conference performance, going 9-4, with five players averaging double figures on the season.

Georgia State scored one of the better non-conference victories for the Sun Belt, winning at Middle Tennessee State, 64-56. The Panthers also played Purdue strong on the road, leading the majority of the game before falling 64-56.

The depth of the league, as expected, has improved with Texas State, Troy, Georgia Southern, and South Alabama all accumulating winning records heading into conference play.

Coastal Carolina has not fared as well so far in its inaugural season in the Sun Belt, going 5-8 in the non-conference and falling at UT Arlington, 90-69, to start conference play.

Three to Watch

  1. The battle-tested Mavericks will get everyone’s best shot: Cross’s aggressive scheduling should pay dividends throughout conference play, and with a balanced and experienced rotation, led by a full-strength Hervey, UT-Arlington is the conference favorite. A four-game stretch with home dates with Arkansas State and Little Rock, and trips to Georgia State and Georgia Southern near the end of the Sun Belt slate, will likely determine whether or not the Mavericks take the top seed going into the conference tournament.
  2. Who has staying power?: The conference has seen a few pleasant surprises from teams not expected to finish in the top half of the Sun Belt. Arkansas State’s monster victory at Georgetown, along with wins over Lehigh and Chattanooga away from home, have the Red Wolves with higher expectations heading into Sun Belt play, after being picked to finish 10th in the league. Louisiana Lafayette was picked to finish seventh in the league, but the Ragin’ Cajuns, under Bob Marlin, currently lead the conference in scoring at 86.7 points per game and in rebounding margin at +8.4 per game in the non-conference slate. Troy was picked to finish ninth in the conference but played their non-conference slate tough with four of their six losses coming by a total of 21 points. The potent combo in guard Wesley Person and big man Jordon Varnado is averaging nearly 30 points a game combined. Guard Jeremy Hollimon’s double figures off the bench gives Phil Cunningham scoring options all over the floor. Troy opens Sun Belt play at South Alabama on Jan. 2.
  3. Player of the Year race will be crowded: Hervey has come around after a minutes restriction for most of the non-conference schedule and seems to be hitting on all cylinders, posting double-doubles in three of his last five games. Carter has been the engine behind Arkansas State’s surprising charge, ranking second in scoring average and first in three-pointers made with 45. Washington’s numbers are a huge reason why Louisiana Lafayette is where it’s at and Bartley has made a massive impact in his first games in Lafayette. Keep an eye on Varnado if Troy can get on a roll in conference play. The big man sits at 15.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and has hit 50 percent of his threes (15-30) this season.